This Today in London History podcast yields up an extremely detailed look at the London of 1415. Compliments of a special moment in the nation’s history.
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London Walks here with your daily London fix.
Story time. History time.
Funny thing about London. It seems to pull out all of the stops at this time of year. It’s pageantry season. The Lord Mayor’s Show. The State Opening of Parliament. Maybe it’s a show of defiance against the dying of the light, against the gloom that’s closing in.
This one, though, is special. Partly because of its antiquity. It’s London on this day – November 23rd – in 1415.
But here’s the thing, it’s not just London on November 23rd, 1415. It’s also Rome, Rome as far back as 2,000 years earlier.
The show London put on that Saturday in November in 1415 was what the Romans called a triumph. A triumph was a public ceremony – a parade – to celebrate and sanctify the success of a military commander who had led Roman forces to victory. On the day of his triumph the Roman general wore a purple toga that identified him as near-divine or near-kingly.
Accompanying him were his army and his captives and spoils of war.
And keeping that purple garment in mind and ditto those captives…fast forward to London that November day in 1415.
And let’s set this up by stringing a few necessary beads on the dateline. Henry V won his great victory over the French at Agincourt on October 25th that year. Henry and his forces were vastly outnumbered. On paper, it should have been a walk in the park for the French. It wasn’t. Numerical superiority isn’t always a winning hand. The English had luck – the weather worked in their favour. And they had the longbow. Luck and the longbow won that battle. As Shakespeare put it, There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. That tide was there for Henry V.
Anyway, our timeline. From Agincourt Henry and his army make their way to Calais, arriving there on October 29th. On November 16th the King crosses to Dover and proceeds to London. His triumph in London is a week later.
So that’s one thing to keep in mind. London had very little time – just days – to get ready for the King’s return. It’s gob-smacking that they accomplished what they did in a matter of days.
Now I’m going to read a slightly abridged but extremely vivid eye-witness account of that day in London history. The account is astonishing in many ways. And not just astonishing. It’s also intriguing. Not least because it’s anonymous. Who was this person who saw all of this – took it all in, right down to no end of minute particulars? Was he moving with the procession? Furiously noting things down as he moved along. Or was he some sort of London scribe who’d been given a preview of sorts, a run-through, including a tip-off about those birds. So extraordinary that moment you have to ask did that really happen? And if it did, how did they pull that off?
Whatever its genesis, it was clearly important that they chronicled it. It was a keeper, one for the page. My hunch is its origins were top down – a contingent of the king’s top people went on ahead, met with the City fathers, said “his Majesty has won a great victory in France, he’s coming to London, we want you to push the boat out for him, give him the most memorable welcome ever.”
Be that as it may, the account is a highlights tour of the main processional route through the London of 600 years ago. Not all of it is readily recognisable. For example, the writer refers to the little bridge – that was the drawbridge in the middle of old London Bridge. So we see London the way Henry V saw it that day: the sequence is, first, the gate and tower at the far end of London Bridge – the Southwark side of the river. Coming from that side of the river that was where you entered London. That was your first impression of London. Then there was the little bridge. Then coming off the bridge and getting to Cornhill, there was the tower of the aqueduct in Cornhill. And then you came to the conduit at the entrance to Cheapside. And then the Eleanor cross in Cheapside. And finally St Paul’s at the western end of Cheapside. And then it was down the hill and over the Fleet River to Fleet Street and the Strand and Westminster. And on to the King’s Palace in Westminster.
Let’s go there. Let’s go see London on this special day in its history, 607 years ago.
Here’s our eyewitness account of red carpet London on November 23rd, 1415.
“The King took his journey by way of the sacred thresholds of the churches of Canterbury and St Augustine’s Canterbury to his manor of Eltham, proposing to honour the city of London on the following Saturday with his presence. The citizens, hearing with the greatest joy the news of his approach, prepared themselves and the city…and when the desired day dawned, the citizens went out to meet the king at the brow of Blackheath. The mayor and … 24 aldermen in scarlet, and the lesser citizens in red cloaks with red-and-white party-coloured hoods, to the number of about 20,000 horsemen… . And when the king came through the midst of them … and the citizens had given glory and honour to God, and congratulations to the king … the citizens rode before him towards the city, and the king followed … .
When they arrived at the tower at the entrance to the bridge … there placed on top of the tower was an enormous figure, with a great axe in his right hand and the keys of the city hanging from a staff in his left hand, like a doorkeeper. On his right side stood an effigy not much smaller, of a woman dressed in a scarlet cloak and feminine ornaments, as if they were man and wife who in their best clothes were looking for the desired face of their lord and were receiving him with full honour. The tower was adorned with spears bearing the royal arms, projecting from the battlements, and trumpets and horns sounded in manifold melody. Spread across the front of the tower was the inscription, “The City of the King of Justice.”
And when they reached the little bridge, they found on both sides before them a lofty pillar in the manner of a tower…made of wood, covered with linen cloth painted the colour of white marble and green jasper, to imitate the blocks and stones of a mason’s work. On top of the column on the right hand side was the effigy of an antelope…with a splendid shield blazoned with the royal arms hanging from its neck, and bearing the royal sceptre in the right foot. On the top of the other column stood the image of a lion, which held aloft in its right claws…the banner of the king.
… And when they reached the … aqueduct in Cornhill they found the tower hidden under a scarlet cloth stretched in the form of a tent, on spears hidden under the cloth. In four prominent positions were the arms of St George, St Edward, St Edmund and of England, … inset with this pious legend: ‘Since the king hopes in the Lord and in the mercy of the highest, he shall not be moved’. Under a covering there was a band of venerable white-haired prophets in tunics and golden cloaks, with their heads hidden in turbans of gold and red who released, when the king came by, sparrows and other small birds in a great cloud as a … thanksgiving to God for the victory He had given. Some of the birds resting on the king’s breast, some of them alighting on his shoulder, and some flying round his head, while the prophets sang in a sweet voice, “Sing to the Lord a new song, Hallelujah. For he hath done marvellous things, Hallelujah.”
Then they went on to the tower of the conduit at the entrance to Cheapside which was decked with an awning of green…woven with little shields of the city’s arms set in florid profusion. The tower was decorated above with shafts of spears of arms placed on the battlements and below the awning were venerable old men, twelve in number, clothed like the apostles and having the names of the twelve apostles written on their brows. With them were twelve kings, martyrs and confessors of the succession of England, with golden girdles round their loins, sceptres in their hands and crowns on their heads. And they sang in unison on the king’s approach a sweet song. And they wafted to him foils of silver intermingled with thin round wafers and wine from the channels and cocks of the conduit, so that they might receive him with bread and wine.
And when they came to the Eleanor cross in Cheapside…it was hidden by a beautiful castle of wood. From the middle of the castle projected a beautiful gateway, from which stretched a wooden bridge almost fifteen paces in length, of good width and about the height of a man’s waist. When the king approached there came out on to the bridge a chorus of beautiful girls dressed in virgin white and playing on tambourines as a mark of rejoicing…and singing “Welcome, Henry the Fifth, King of England and of France.”
And when they came to the tower of the conduit at the exit of Cheapside towards St Paul’s, above the tower was stretched a canopy sky-blue in colour … and the top … was adorned by an archangel in shining gold … . Below … was a figure of majesty represented by a sun darting out flashing rays. And the tower had been surrounded with many niches, and in each niche was a beautiful young girl, in the posture of a statue. And in their hands were golden cups from which they very lightly puffed gold leaf upon the king’s head as he rode by.
And all the while they sang in a sweet voice.
Such was the dense throng of people in Cheapside from one end to the other that horsemen had scarcely room to ride through the crowds. So that a bigger or more impressive crowd had never gathered before in London.
And amidst these shouts of praise and celebrations of the citizens the king himself went along, dressed in a purple robe, not with a haughty look…accompanied by only a few of his most faithful servants. Following him, guarded by knights, were the captive dukes, counts and the marshal. From his silent face and sober pace it could be inferred that the king was giving thanks and glory to god alone and not to man. And so he rode away to his palace of Westminster.
Jeeves, could you go out to the garage and fetch the time machine, I feel like taking a quick spin to November 23rd, 1415.
And a Today in London recommendation, let’s go on Shaughan’s Hidden London Walk.
He’ll take us to St Magnus the Martyr, Christopher Wren’s most expensive church. Take us there to see what T.S. Eliot described as its “Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.” Before he shows us its magnificent model of Old London Bridge.
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Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.
It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”
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And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.